From the beginning the Gundam franchise has shown us the cost of war. We’ve seen it through a range of human emotions, mental strain, death, and destruction. Two of the latest Gundam anime have focused on a physical cost as well as mental. Daryl of Gundam Thunderbolt and Mikazuki of Iron-blooded Orphans lead their fights despite a continued cost to their bodies.
Every episode of Gundam Thunderbolt is like being punched in the gut, often leaving me speechless, and Iron-blooded Orphans wasn’t been far behind. Both series bring us some of the darkest depictions thus far in the Gundam series and amazingly they have come out very close together. (Although it should be noted that Thunderbolt is based on an ongoing manga that began in 2012.)
The Gundam franchise has been running for 38 years with multiple iterations, spinoffs, universes, reimaginings, and sequels. While it is one of the most important foundations of the real robot genre Gundam has had entries all over the spectrum from rather realistic interpretations (or as realistic as one can get about giant robots) to iterations that are pure super robot and everything in between. In that 38 year span, Sunrise has tried to adapt the series to the tastes and expectations of the times. How successful they have been is up for debate, wildly variable depending on the version you look at, and highly subject to revisionist interpretation but they wisely keep tweaking the formula each time. That said there are a few key pillars that are almost always part of the Gundam DNA.
One of those pillars is that Gundam is a series is the constant antiwar message of the series. You can argue the franchises effectiveness in that regard. There is the idea of attributed to Francois Truffaut that there is no such thing as an antiwar film by the fact that no matter the underlying message cinema often makes war look noble and cool despite what it otherwise wants to do. Usually, an antiwar film’s most powerful weapon in the face of that argument is showing the cost for the soldiers and civilians caught up in the conflict. Since Yoshiyuki “Kill’em All” Tomino’s iconic run of the original series Gundam has never shied away from killing characters in order to prove how horrible war can be. But as Gundam is always evolving it has started to try a new approach to show the horrors of wars.
When you think about the toll a war takes on the combatants it is easy to conjure up the simple deaths of the battlefield. These sorts of casualties are often visceral and horrific. But it is easy to forget all the other ways wars rob the life of those it touches. While the body counts were huge during the bloody battles of Gettysburg, Antietam, and The Wilderness in the American Civil War it is important to remember that 2/3 of the casualties of the war were due to disease as opposed to bullets and bayonets. And that also ignores all the soldiers who survived the war but were emotionally and physically scarred by the fighting.
Gundam Thunderbolt and Iron-Blooded Orphans deal with the price of war in ways more than just killing off characters. Although they also still kill off characters. Recently Gundam has also been slowly crippling its main characters as a recent way of showing of the price of war. It is one thing to see a character die heroically in a fiery blaze of glory. It is another thing to see them slowly lose pieces of themselves as they are forced back to the front time and time again despite the fact that each time they go back they are slowly disappearing.